How digital documentation may create our lives

baby blogger

Have patience with me today as I start off with a weird and seemingly random observation … but it leads to something very interesting, I promise!

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite authors and I have read several biographies about him including an excellent book, Hemingway, by Kenneth Lynn.

One of the fascinating observations Lynn makes is that Hemingway’s super-macho personality might have developed because of the existence a single childhood photograph.

Apparently Hemingway’s mother was strangely obsessed with the idea of having twin girls. So when Ernest was born, his mother began to dress him and his older sister in matching dresses as though they were twins. Even more critical, she posed them in different settings and had them photographed as though Ernest were a girl.

Ernest-HemingwayThe author contends that one surviving photo of Hemingway dressed this way haunted the man so badly that he spent his childhood, adolescence, and eventually his manhood overcompensating for his questionable sexual identity.

This is a provocative theory but even more interesting is the thought that if that photo had never survived, the baby Hemingway would have formed no memories of these humiliating outfits. If he had never seen the photo from his infancy, would he have chased the demons that led to his emergence as a writer? Would his books exist?

Whether you believe in God, a creator, or science, there is undoubtedly some evolutionary or divine benefit for the fact we don’t form memories until (on average) 3 1/2 years old. At that age, the hippocampus, a portion of the brain used to store memories, has adequately matured to handle that task.

So for millenia, our species has had a blank slate engineered into our personality for the first years of life.

Until now.

baby poopingToday, it is not unusual for a child to have its own website and email address before it is born. Proud parents document every poop and meltdown to the point that there is a permanent digital content trail for their adult selves to discover and process.

It will not be possible to re-frame and re-interpret hazy memories to make sense of who we are and who we want to become. The “millennials” will have the unvarnished facts and they will have them in high definition.

It is what it is. I’m not sure whether the detailed documentation of our lives is necessarily good or bad, but it will certainly lead to something profound.

I’m interested in thinking through the implications … how will our personalities evolve when nothing is forgotten? Do we need to know everything? Do we want to know everything?

Put your thinking cap on and let me know in the comment section what you believe the digital documentation of our lives will mean …

Top illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Robert Scoble.

Hemingway photograph: Ernest Hemingway in 1944. Photograph: George Karger/Time Life Pictures 

Bottom illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Eurgirls.

Reference to Hemingway book is an affiliate link.

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  • Such an interesting topic! I may comment several times throughout the day on this one!

    First thought that sprang to mind is that it might be cool for parents to keep a private online diary of the child growing and, on a particular birthday, give the URL and login details as a present. This way the life of the child isn’t plastered all over the net for everyone to see (and get bored of in some cases!).

    I’m not sure how knowing everything about your childhood would effect someone, it’s the Observer Effect I guess, but your effecting yourself as opposed to others?!

    I’ll be back……..

  • PeterJ42

    I wrote a piece about a slightly different area where the documentation of our lives affects us…

    “Back in the 1700s institutes were a brilliant idea. They allowed great men (always men then, until Marie Curie broke the mould) to come together in a rare opportunity to share ideas and converse. They set up introductions and provided mentoring. Collectively they could fund a powerful library of work on the topics of interest.

    So Institutes established a reputation. Membership was seen as a badge of acceptance, of honour, of proof of learning.

    This is a reputation people have traded off ever since. And devalued.

    In the modern world, people don’t need institutes. They can converse in real-time 24:7 with anyone in the world who has knowledge on their chosen subject, multi-sourcing and checking facts in a way their predecessors never dreamed possible. They have access to the world’s literature in the subject.

    They also don’t need the badge of recognition. Any expert in a subject will have a powerful online profile, with papers, articles, blogs and studies online.

    So institutes have been taken over by the wannabees. Those who haven’t the ability or the original thinking, but still want the recognition. Who haven’t created the online profile but want to be seen in the same picture as the clever people who have done pioneering and original work. They have more in common with the Tradesmen’s Guilds who tried to stop anyone who wasn’t accredited from working – a union.

    Those who wrap themselves in the cloak of professional bodies are those who cannot stand out in the field in their own right. It is a badge of failure, not of distinction.”

    How it relates here is that many people are exploiting other people’s lack of easily available knowledge. That loophole will close. Good thing too.

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  • Paul Taylor

    A fascinating subject…! What interests me is the effect of people seeing – not just their own – but their parents lives digitally recorded.

    I remember as a child of about 9 or 10 wanting to find out what my parents were like before I was born. I got some old photo albums and eventually found a short set of Polaroids of my mum and dad on their first foreign holiday (Spain- I’d guess sometime late 60’s) It was bizarre for me to see them acting like “young people” with no responsibilities. I wanted to see more and find out more but of course there was nothing else. It skipped forward a couple of years to baby photo’s of me.

    The really special moments – few and far between – were the only things recorded as technology was scarce.

    It’s intriguing to ponder whether having every mundane moment available online will mean future generations know us more or know us less.

  • Lots to think about on this subject!

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Mark! Found a bit of time to swing by to day, finally, and enjoyed the topic. To some degree, I think this relates to the Selfie post (which I wanted to talk about and didn’t make time) – Look at me, look at my life, look at my trophy (child, shoes, wife, husband, dog, house…) as mentioned earlier, I think it devalues things. And doesn’t it kinda violate your golden rule about Content is King? SIGH.

    Didn’t know that about Mr. Hemingway (who is of course from my part of the world.) I did interview and photograph a woman who dated him. I met her when she turned 100 and she had beautiful features even then. He wrote to her saying that being around her was like watching a duck fly (lots of gusto and purpose). But to your point… what happens to us when we are young may last forever. The question is do we need pictures of every instant of it? No…

    One other thought, I think it was Dickens who said his work was not what happened but “how he remembered it.” Memories are precious and can become leaving breathing things in our mind. A picture? Meh. Great stuff as always, Mark.

  • Claudia Licher

    Hi Mark,
    Just last Friday I blogged about my son – his start at school reminded me how much big changes can affect you, especially once you’ve grown used to your surroundings. But: no name, no picture. Neither day care nor his new school got our permission to publish photos on the internet. What our son does online when he grows older will be up to him, but he’ll start with a relatively clean slate.
    All this and he still enjoys looking at pictures of himself as a baby or a toddler. But he’s got plenty of room to make up stories about himself. Of course I may resume writing my memoirs at some point 🙂

  • Guest

    Really interesting topic and I’m one of those that falls into the the document every pee, poop and moments of genius camp of parents that perhaps overshare and bore the majority of their audience senseless. Like Paul, I’m interested in the effect of people seeing their parents lives digitally recorded. For those that have been unfortunate enough to have lost a parent too early, what wouldn’t they give to get more of a glimpse into the everyday lives of their loved ones, mundanity and all. Whereas in the past, you would perhaps have a few photos at most, the child of now has family history at their fingertips – a magical gift I’d say.

  • I think what you are really talking about is “social proof,” which I have also written about extensively, especially in my book Return On Influence. There is a big difference between offline and online, as you imply. Offline you have to EARN that institute membership. Online, you can basically make stuff up. You can invent your own awards, buy Twitter followers and lie your way to glory. Sad, but it happens all the time!

  • Very, very interesting take on the subject Paul. Well done!

  • Yes, I have been thinking about this. If we have everything documented, then there are no such things as memories.

    I have a friend who loves telling a funny story about me. He has the story about 90% wrong, but that is how the memory has “evolved” for him and in fact the story has become more audacious through the years. I never correct him because he is having fun with it. I won’t ruin it. But an actual video of the event would, right? Weird times.

    Good to hear from you!!

  • One of my kids has more or less put a moratorium on my postings. He said he does not want to be the boy from the blog. Understood! : )

  • Very interesting perspective. Thanks for the comment.

  • PeterJ42

    That’s a very negative and first generation computer user comment, if I may say so, Mark.

    There are 2 views of every person or company. One is what they like to say about themselves. I call it their branding. For example “Coke refreshes you best”.
    The 2nd is what other people say about them. Your friends, colleagues, influencers. I call this the peer view. For example “Coke rots your teeth”, “Coke is a rip off”, “Coke is mass-market and not for people like me”.

    You can build a brand or facade fairly easily, online or off. In the old days no-one could peek behind and you could create a truly dysfunctional company as long as you had good advertising and an aggressive salesforce.

    Online there is much more information on which to base your “Do I trust this person” decision. Sure you can build the hype much more quickly. But you can also see past the brand, find the negatives and build a multi-faceted picture.

    This happens without us really doing anything different. We are all creating our brand through multiple tiny actions, every blog, every tweet, every comment, and our peer profile comes from the responses to those. If we are skilled, knowledgeable and genuinely helpful this comes through. If we are just selling, broadcasting and egotistical this comes through too. And if there is nothing there at all, perhaps this person is behind the times, or perhaps they have something to hide.

    You pick yourself and promote yourself, now – you don’t need the badge of a membership to do it for you.

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Mark! Good to chat from my perspective as well. (and about time – a selfie criticism. ha) I love your story about your friend’s stories. Indeed, being wrong is irrelevant in story-telling. Being entertaining is relevant. If all is “true” and documented, where do we insert creativity? And just so I can try to fit in, may I please say, “Your Selfie rocked, dude!” 🙂 Shared it on linked in. Onward!

  • My comment was certainly not meant to be negative and I’m not sure what you’re even disagreeing about. I was agreeing with you and I agree with your second comment too so I don’t know where the dissonance is occurring from your side : )

  • Ha! I had some fun with that. Still not my thing though!

  • PeterJ42

    I like you and your posts, Mark. Don’t take it personally.
    But reread your response. It basically says offline is real and everyone online is lying.

    I would suggest the proportions of liars to honest people are probably about the same – it is a people thing, not method specific.

    Yes you can create a big lie online. I’ve seen it done with Marketing Automation. But you can also check people out in a way you can’t offline. The herd may not want to, but the people like you and me, who look behind the headline can.

    And I would venture to suggest that it is harder to create a fictional whole blog and online history than it is to write a fictional CV, institute entry or company bio.

    : )

  • I did not mean to imply that everyone lies. It is just much easier to manufacture an image today. To be invited to an institute you had to actually DO something. Many of the badges of social proof on the web today however can be easily manufactured. You can even manufacture your way on the NYT bestseller list and in fact that is the typical route these days. PS I never take it personally : )

  • PeterJ42

    I’m reminded of the old joke “women can fake orgasms – men can fake whole relationships.

    My wife is studying history of art. When you study it you find that all of these reputations were faked – an influential client led to a me-too effect which gave popularity totally out of line with quality of the work.

    What I think we are actually seeing is that the trickery is actually becoming more obvious. They call it the availability heuristic.

    The other psychology factor is that we seem to suspend our critical faculties when faced with something new. It is only with time that we decide what to trust and what not. We saw this with email – for a while every direct mailshot translated into email produced wonderful results. Now the results are roughly what they were before.

    Seth Godin wrote a relevant piece earlier this week when he talked about heroes. Were the Beatles etc. really such wonderful musicians? Or were they just in the right place when the revolution happened?

    I think there have certainly been some undeserving heroes of the pioneering internet age. But as it matures we will develop scepticism and ways to work out who to trust online.

    As marketing strategists we need to be aware of this and, indeed, work towards helping people develop it so they can make better decisions on who to work with on their online reputation.

  • The other week I saw a series of posts ranging from ‘most influential babies’ and ‘important selfies’ and really, really rolled my eyes so hard it took three days for them to roll back in. That said – it’s so interesting Mark, to think of it THIS way. I think this trend will shape us, and we will continue to shape it. I’m in the ‘to each his/her own’ camp, try to respect everyone’s choices.

    I don’t think we need to know everything, don’t think we want to. And from my own experience, I can tell you the photos and scrapbooks don’t tell the whole story; not like you make a 4-page spread for the 2nd meltdown of the WDW vacation, right? So.. seeing the potty training in action. Not sure the video or pictures are that traumatic – until the realization that not only were these ‘OMG really, w/ the camera? Dad?!’ events recorded but they were also shared and published with the whole world. Forever findable. Will that be more fodder for the shrink’s couch or ‘is what it is’ part of life? That is the part I think that will make things.. different. FWIW.

  • Ardath Albee

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting topic! And timely. Last night on the news I heard about a study that taking photos impacts memory and the ways in which we remember things. One point made was that people who take photos remember less about what they’ve seen than those who are more present in the moment.

    Here’s one link for anyone who wants to take a look:

    What I think about is context. Pictures can be taken out of context as well as words can be. So, if our lives are documented are we creating a false context for our memories?

    But I also wonder if we will take less risks or not try bold things because of the idea that everything is documented. I have no idea, but it is interesting to think about.

  • Call me in 15 years and we’ll probably have some answers Davina : )

  • You have my head spinning. : )

    Last week I wrote about the psychology of selfies. The idea of always being “camera ready” is certainly impacting culture, lives and relationships. Some of the experts in the article saw some positives in this trend but overall I think it is going to create some harmful cultural dynamics.

    Always an honor to have you stop by Ms. Albee.

  • rhonda hurwitz

    Think of the kids who will end up on a shrink’s couch because their parents didn’t document their early years! We may end up with a new term for that — undocumented baby syndrome … Hemingway in reverse! Millenials, get out those cameras.

  • “mother, I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM!!” Where is my Flickr account?” Yes, I could see it happening : )

  • I’m a grandparent now, and I really try to keep it under control – and bodily functions NEVER need to be referenced. Ever.

    I’ll mention how proud I am of my kids and grandson, and I’ll post photos, but even those are limited to my Facebook friends. I don’t want my grandson’s pic showing up in a blog or anything unsavory. Of course, Facebook keeps changing privacy policies, and I’m really lax on due diligence keeping things locked down.

    That means my own friends could download/share that photo elsewhere. I guess that is where trust comes in, but I’ve actually heard stories recently where “friends” shared Facebook pics to a broader audience than what was originally intended.

    Our teens will have regrets with some of the freedoms they explored in the “Internet that never forgets”. Our younger kids will have regrets about OUR freedom of sharing. Great point, Mark.

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